Brow Beat

For a Nuanced Depiction of King George VI, Don’t Watch The King’s Speech. Watch The Crown.

King George VI in The King’s Speech and The Crown.
King George VI in The King’s Speech and The Crown.

The Weinstein Company and Netflix

Netflix’s new series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown, opens on the ominous image of King George VI (Jared Harris) bent over a sink, coughing up blood. It’s a disorienting visual by design: The figure often lauded for restoring faith in the British monarchy is immediately whittled down to a brittle, dying old man.

The scene works as careful historical reimagining, a strategy that The Crown continues to employ as it moves its narrative forward. In tracing George VI’s final years of life, the opening hours of the series make an empathetic, nuanced argument in his favor, presenting a leader of conflicting priorities and shrewd political ability, a family man pushed into global power, a monarch who rose to the occasion at the expense of his physical and mental health. In short, it shows him as a man defined by his complexity.

This man—the George VI of The Crown—stands in marked contrast to the George VI of The King’s Speech. That Oscar-winning 2010 biopic similarly works to make George VI relatable but ends up offering up a character who is far more simple and more familiar. The King’s Speech zeroes in on the struggle of George VI (Colin Firth) to overcome his speech impediment as he is called to be king, following the abrupt departure of his elder brother Edward. In the mold of so many awards contenders, the film presents a melodramatic story of overcoming adversity. And it takes notable liberties to bolster its sympathetic portrait, from exaggerating the severity of the king’s stammer to inaccurately implying that he stood against appeasement. These choices depoliticize and further exalt its subject. But where The King’s Speech shies away from the intricacies of George VI’s reign, The Crown embraces them—and provides a fuller, more vibrant depiction of the king in the process.

Creator Peter Morgan achieves this, in part, by trusting his viewer. In The Crown, reminders of George VI’s stammer come through in moments of quiet importance, as when he mentions the brother who thrust his life into chaos, or prepares to give his daughter away to a man he’s not sure is up to the job. Once the king is formally diagnosed with a terminal illness and develops an obsession with hiding it—going so far as to explain to his doctor that “there must be no weakness, no vulnerability” in a king’s public image—Morgan trusts we’ll be able to interpret his lifelong struggle with speech as the source of his penchant for secrecy, his paranoia at showing the slightest hint of insecurity.

More importantly, we meet King George VI in the series’ first few scenes as, of all things, human. He is hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, and, above all, a political tactician. (On the occasion of Winston Churchill’s re-election as Prime Minister, George VI jokes to him, “Would it be terribly unconstitutional of me to say how happy I am?”) As he comes to terms with his fate, he meticulously lays out the structural future of British leadership. He promises to “gently” break Elizabeth into the role of the sovereign, ensures that her husband Philip (Matt Smith) support her reign without conditions or reservations, and fends off a building opposition movement to unseat Churchill (John Lithgow). We bear witness not just to his values but his acumen. Indeed, while The King’s Speech goes to great lengths to depict George VI as a man of character and dignity, its saccharine methods tend to get in the way of actually convincing you, because it’s so easy to spot its manipulations. The Crown, conversely, manages to be more credible by acknowledging not just the king’s morals but also his cunning and biases.

The Crown meets a major challenge of biographical drama in that sense: to level the grandiosity with which history’s leaders are often treated. The way Morgan dramatizes the king’s famed saying about his daughters, for instance—“Lilibet is my pride, Margaret my joy”—exemplifies the series’ intimate approach to character. In the case of Elizabeth, she is the king’s daughter as well as his protegé, the woman he must protect but also the woman to whom he must reveal his deepest self—and consequently, it’s in her presence that he confides how tiring and lonely his life has become since assuming the throne. With Margaret, meanwhile, George VI conveys a level of happiness we don’t otherwise see, most notably through his jubilant performance of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” in the series’ second episode. The sprawl of The Crown allows even a supporting player like George VI to play a central role in his own story; with so many other characters in his orbit in the story’s beginning stages, we’re able to see him from a variety of perspectives, and gain a more robust understanding of his interior life as a result. The King’s Speech doesn’t exactly offer the same insight: Its overriding focus on the dynamic between George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) feels relatively stilted and narrow.                     

Where The Crown is attentive to the finer points of governing, The King’s Speech is sweeping and inspiring, and where The Crown treats the accumulation of power with sobering cynicism, The King’s Speech portrays it as an opportunity for great men to meet their potential. These major differences exist despite the fact that both depictions, ultimately, present King George VI in a heroic light. Put simply, The Crown separates itself by avoiding easy adulation. It surpasses what The King’s Speech achieves by managing to create an infinitely more dynamic figure.

King George VI’s ascendancy in The Crown serves to mirror the pending ascendancy of his daughter: the instantaneous removal from a normal and private life, the assumption of a role that is more a burden than a blessing. And after his passing, his mother laments that his being forced to serve as king “effectively killed” him; friends and relatives around her, meanwhile, mournfully eulogize him as a man of faith and family who overcame enormous odds. There, essentially, is the difference between The King’s Speech and The Crown—between the “great man” narrative and one that’s more critical and grounded. Both projects make clear that George VI was at least partially defined by his speech impediment and his perseverance in trying to work past it. But only one keys into the fact that he was also defined by the limitations of his circumstance, the abdication of his brother, his loving relationships with his two daughters, the compromising nature of his politics. The Crown doesn’t honor King George VI by paying tribute to a great man. It does so by giving us a chance to get to know to the real one.